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A Hated Industry Fights Back

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It is no secret that in the last few years Pharma has been on the ropes. The antics of drug “re-pricers” like Martin Shkreli and Valeant Pharmaceuticals who buy old drugs and jack up prices, Pharma companies like Pfizer trying to flee U.S. taxes by merging overseas and the emerging evidence of how Pharma deliberately caused the current opioid and heroin addiction epidemic have made Pharma a disdained industry. Even the American Medical Association (AMA) has declared its opposition to Pharma’s aggressive ways, suggesting limits on direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising.

There is evidence of government pushback to Pharma’s aggressive profiteering too. Pending state bills would force drug makers to reveal their true costs and allow insurers to refuse payment and a new Medicare payment system to stop the incentives for a doctor to use a $2,000 drug when a $50 drug would do is in the works. Currently, if doctors pay for drugs themselves and administer them in their office, Medicare pays them back with a six percent bonus.

“Under the new program, “Doctors who prescribe a lot of newer, more expensive drugs will earn less than they used to,” notes The New York Times–as will Pharma. No one was surprised when the Medicare plan was termed “another troubling example of unelected bureaucrats making decisions behind closed doors,” by Pharma-friendly lawmakers. How dare the government protect our tax dollars?

Pharma is also shedding jobs like Endo Pharmaceuticals which is slashing 740 jobs and a merger between the Pharma-related contract research organization giant Quintiles and the healthcare consultancy IMS Health. Companies don’t merge during good times, they spin off.

Now Pharma is fighting back. Its lobbying groups, PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research
junkfoodefand Manufacturers of America along with the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, or BIO have launched a campaign targeting lawmakers who are trying to legislate away its profit party. It especially defends the extreme “biologic” liquid drugs (think Humira) which Pharma rolled out when its blockbuster pills went off patent. Pharma’s biologics cost five and often six digits a year for a patient to use–costs usually picked up by taxpayers.

The PhRMA/BIO campaign profiles patients whose lives were all saved or lengthened by Pharma medicines. Like “Ask Your Doctor,” DTC ads, the videos are full of puppies, sunsets and People Just Like You. We get to meet “Theresa,” diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 57, “Hydeia” suffering from HIV/AIDS at 31, “Charis” suffering from ankylosing spondylitis at 29 and “Henry” suffering from glutaric acidemia Type 1 at the young age of three. In one video, a voice over asks, “how do we place value” on “Another decade with a spouse. A few more years with your best friend. A rich, full life rather than one cut short.” Hold on to your wallets. The campaign even claims high-priced meds help the economy by creating jobs, like for “sheet metal workers.” Right.

Of course no one wishes the patients ill, but the campaign’s message is if you question Big Pharma’s high prices, you do.  The stories imply that regulation of Pharma prices would threaten the patients’ lives by jeopardizing “research.” But according to Public Citizen and other sources, Pharma’s actual research is only one-fifth of what it claims.

Nowhere in the new PhRMA PR campaign are the actual drug costs mentioned like the 12 cancer drugs that cost above $100,000 a year though many do not clearly even extend life. It is nowhere mentioned that a year on a cocktail of psychiatric drugs can easily cost $60,000. Instead of addressing prices, the tear-jerker campaign focuses on rare diseases and cancers that presumably will not be cured if lawmakers curtail Big Pharma profits.

Parading sick patients in front of the FDA and state officials who decide drug reimbursements is how Pharma has managed to get so many five and six digit a year drugs approved in the first place. Co-opted patients, sometimes called Astroturf because they are not really grassroots, “appear before public and consumer panels, contact lawmakers, and provide media outlets a human face to attach to a cause,” writes Melissa Healy of the Los Angeles Times, “when insurers balk at reimbursing patients for new prescription medications.”

Certainly everyone’s heart goes out to “Amy” in the new Pharma campaign who says her “lungs collapsed and stomach burst during a surgical procedure” a week before her senior prom and she “slipped into a coma and didn’t wake until months later.” Everyone is happy that Amy is “soon starring in a local musical.” But how many of us are at risk of such extreme bad medical luck before our prom? And more importantly, is such a rare medical occurrence a justification for six digit drug prices?

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Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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